Neutrality Hurts My Psyche

My non-mediator friends often ask me to help them by intervening in a spontaneous conflict they may be having with a partner or another friend. The request is usually part teasing about my "mediator ready" approach to all situations, even when I'm in social settings, and some wishful thinking on their part since, as non-mediator's, they, like most people, are mystified and avoidant of conflict and really wouldn't mind having someone else tell them how to navigate through it. I usually respond to these requests by claiming I'm "off duty" but in actuality I'm still thinking and interacting like a mediator.

It's true that I often approach all aspects of my life from a mediator's perspective. Just as friends tease me about mediating the conflicts between them, they also empathize with my partner for having married a mediator. "It's just impossible to ever win an argument with her," she often states. That's because, even when arguing with my wife, I try to find a "win/win" solution to the problem and/or increase our understanding of each other's perspectives. Fisher would be proud. My wife's often frustrated as much as she is appreciative (After all, don't we all want to win, to be right sometimes? I can empathize with her as well, but I can't change the fact that I'm a mediator).

Yet just as I'm always a mediator even when I'm not mediating, I'm also still a deeply flawed and emotional human being when I am mediating. I think I'm fairly decent at maintaining the perception of neutrality when mediating. That is, the parties I've mediated have rarely accused me of taking sides. As mediators we all know that the reality of whether we've taken someone's side is less important than the parties' experience and perception of our neutrality. In other words, as long as they don't experience us as being bias in some way, then, for all practical purposes, we've done our job. The internal struggle, the one the parties hopefully never witness, is something else all together. The reality for me as a mediator is that neutrality hurts.

There are just some cases and clients that will push a mediator's buttons whether intentionally (they're trying to pull you into their conflict dynamic) or unintentionally (they remind you of your best friend from the second grade with whom you had a falling out because you preferred playing Monopoly over Boggle). Sometimes, it's just painful to sit there and experience whatever sensations the party or parties are causing in your psyche. Just as I can't bury the mediator in me during "normal" social and life interactions, I also can't bury the injured child, teen, and/or adult that is intricately connected to my existence even when I am mediating. Instead, I must allow myself to experience it in a strictly internal way; merely observing the sensations and feelings that interacting with the party or parties is causing but never actually expressing them.

The end result of this, both in my personal and professional life?

It's difficult to express raw emotion.

Anger? Sadness? Frustration? Fear? I'm great at identifying these emotions in myself and observing them. But I can no longer express them in any truly raw way (or maybe I had trouble with that anyway and becoming a mediator was just a natural progression in that direction) even when it's absolutely appropriate to do so. Perhaps that's all good because isn't win/win/win/win/win ...the goal? If everyone wins, then no one loses. Nothing regretful is said. No walls need repairing; no dishes are broken. We move through the conflict and get to the other side.

Yet it hurts: 24/7 neutrality. It hurts in some inexpressible way.

By Laura L. Noah
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